Monday, January 9, 2017


Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini has followed up his 30-year old brilliant book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion with another great book Pre-Suasion: a Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. This latest book discusses how to set up conditions that make people more likely to be persuaded. It’s filled with surprising results on how we can be influenced without realizing it.

While this book is definitely written for lay-people in an easy-to-read style, it’s not hard to see the author’s academic roots. The book finished with 160 pages of references and notes!

Cialdini explains a number of important principles of “pre-suasion,” such as the fact that we tend to overestimate the importance of the thing we’re thinking about right now, and we tend to think the things we focus on are the cause of events. But, it’s the specific experiments and stories that make the book fascinating.

A Toronto consultant used to get resistance on the price of big projects from clients until he found a solution. “Just before declaring his ($75,000) fee,” he would joke “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this.” Amazingly, this small change before revealing his fee eliminated price complaints.

In another example, “Researchers have found that the amount of money people said they’d be willing to spend on dinner went up when the restaurant was named Studio 97, as opposed to Studio 17.” I’m sure most people would say they wouldn’t be influenced this way, but they’re likely wrong.

To get someone to take a “desired action, it’s not necessary to alter a person’s beliefs or attitudes or experiences. It’s not necessary to alter anything at all except what’s prominent in that person’s mind at the moment of decision.”

According to Daniel Kahneman, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”

Political scientist Bernard Cohen wrote “The press may not be successful most of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.” Cialdini goes on to explain “in an election, whichever political party is seen by voters to have the superior stance on the issue highest on the media’s agenda at the moment will likely win.” No doubt this played a role in Trump’s victory.

The 9/11 attacks caused many people to fear flying. “It’s estimated that about 1,600 Americans lost their lives in additional auto accidents as a direct result.”

Cialdini discovered the way to make presentations and writing compelling. “The most successful pieces each began with a mystery story. The authors described a state of affairs that seemed perplexing and then invited the reader into subsequent material as a way of dispatching the enigma.” He goes on to gives a detailed 6-step plan for using this mystery story device.

“An analysis of the names of five hundred attorneys at ten US law firms found that the harder an attorney’s name was to pronounce, the lower he or she stayed in the firm’s hierarchy. This effect held ... independent of the foreignness of the names.”

To be liked, “highlight similarities and provide compliments.” It’s also helps to be friendly, attractive, and funny.

“The number one rule for salespeople is to show customers that you genuinely like them.” “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

“A communicator who references a weakness early on is immediately seen as more honest.” So, to influence, you shouldn’t just hammer on the strengths of your product or solution.

As a demonstration of the power of kinship, the author found a way to get more than the usual 20% of parents of students to fill out a survey. “A colleague suggested that I play the kinship card by offering an extra point on my next test ... to each student whose parent responded to the questionnaire.” This carrot got 159 of 163 parents to respond.

In a powerful story of Jews seeking protection from Nazis by going to Japan, the deciding moment came when the Japanese High Command asked why they should help the Jews. The answer was “Because we are Asian, like you.”

On the subject of ethical behaviour in organizations, “those who cheat for you will cheat against you.” Think twice about creating a culture of questionable morals in your company.

Overall, I found this to be a thoroughly fascinating book well worth the read. Even the most overconfident readers are likely to admit that some of the persuasion techniques would likely be effective on them. The best defense is to understand the methods people are using on you.


  1. I am just returning this book to the Ottawa Public Library this week. It is a fun read. It is useful in academic and business environments. And in political environments, the DilbertBlog discusses this book in terms of the persuasive techniques of Mr Trump. Many of the lessons / techniques are also in obvious use by Trudeau too. It makes an interesting filter when reading MSM like The Atlantic or CBC's Michael Enright.

    1. @Eric: Like his previous book, I see examples everywhere I look, too.

  2. What Cialdini's works (and those with related works) bring to light just how incredibly little value-added there is between different products, e.g. Timex vs Rolex; KIA vs Maserati; Liberal vs Conservative; blonde vs brunette, smart phone vs flip phone, etc.

    What we are actually buying (aka what they are actually selling) is not the overwhelming merits of the product, but simple appeasement of any number of the facets of our highly fallible ego.

    As Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”